Monday, November 12, 2007

Single cells in monkey brain trained to associate numbers with their symbols

An interesting study from Diester and Nieder showing single nerve cell activity that might be the primitive cognitive precursor that ultimately has given rise to symbolic thinking in linguistic humans. Their abstract:
The utilization of symbols such as words and numbers as mental tools endows humans with unrivalled cognitive flexibility. In the number domain, a fundamental first step for the acquisition of numerical symbols is the semantic association of signs with cardinalities. We explored the primitives of such a semantic mapping process by recording single-cell activity in the monkey prefrontal and parietal cortices, brain structures critically involved in numerical cognition. Monkeys were trained to associate visual shapes with varying numbers of items in a matching task. After this long-term learning process, we found that the responses of many prefrontal neurons to the visual shapes reflected the associated numerical value in a behaviorally relevant way. In contrast, such association neurons were rarely found in the parietal lobe. These findings suggest a cardinal role of the prefrontal cortex in establishing semantic associations between signs and abstract categories, a cognitive precursor that may ultimately give rise to symbolic thinking in linguistic humans.

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